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the powers

27 september 2013

The Powers, by Valerie Sayers, is a novel about baseball and coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn – and the Dodgers barely figure in it at all.

That alone gives The Powers quite a few points for originality, in my book. Despite the common impression that the entire population of Kings County used to pack into Ebbets Field every summer's day, and that every family in the borough roomed-and-boarded a Dodger rookie, the reality is probably as Sayers portrays it: there were Yankee fans in Brooklyn, too. (There appear to have been no Giants fans anywhere in New York.)

Chief among the Yankees fans in The Powers is Babe O'Leary, a formidable grandmother nicknamed after George Ruth. When the novel opens, it's April 1941, Ruth is long retired, and Lou Gehrig is dying. Babe O'Leary has transferred her affections to Joe DiMaggio: all of 26 years old, and already feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Well, it's not like we've never read about Joe DiMaggio before, either. But Sayers addresses our overfamiliarity with DiMaggio in an opening chapter where she apostrophizes the Clipper. Where has he gone, after all?

Maybe you were just an idea back then too, back when a whole country followed your impossible hitting streak and believed in it as some crazy ideal of goodness and order and beauty, back when we believed in you as if you were some movie star, some Greek god, some Superman come to rescue a brutish murderous world from our own icy hearts. (3)
One character who believes just that about DiMaggio is Joe D'Ambrosio, fiery young Catholic idealist who spends 1941 planning a future for himself as a conscientious objector, imagining himself fleeing the country and then (how is not so clear) sneaking back over the border at the head of detachments of Jewish refugees. He even dreams of enlisting Joe DiMaggio in a project to rescure Europe's Jews from Hitler. Meanwhile, Joe D'Ambrosio is in love with Babe's granddaughter Agnes O'Leary, who in turn can't decide between Joe and Joe's best friend, another nice Catholic boy named Bernie. This love triangle spends much of the novel feeling the kinds of anguish of the flesh available, anymore, only in historical coming-of-age novels. Who will lose their virginity to whom, and in what order?

Babe watches Agnes grow up (entirely too much like Babe for Babe's comfort). Meanwhile, in other counterpointed chapters, we follow the thoughts of the unknowable DiMaggio, a creature built out of drives toward sex, tobacco, alcohol, and base hits. DiMag has a child on the way from a wife who proverbially doesn't understand him – a wife who barely seems to exist except as a concentration of all the things that a hungry world expects from him.

The DiMaggio chapters of The Powers recall Peter Golenbock's novel 7. They are far superior to Golenbock's fictional evocation of Mickey Mantle, though that's damning The Powers with very faint praise. I don't mean faint praise, though: Sayers succeeds by portraying DiMaggio obliquely. We see his animal needs, his testy attachment to mentor Lefty Gomez, his bewilderment with women. But we see little enough about his day-to-day baseball exploits. Yankee games, for this DiMaggio, are work, work that stresses him to the point of incoherence. For America, each game of the 56 is a magical moment. For DiMaggio, it's just a fastball on the inside corner and the blur of a baseball reaching left field.

How much suspense can a novelist generate from a narrative of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak? Everybody knows what happens: "One night in Cleveland, oh oh oh / Goodbye streak, DiMaggio." But suspense is all in the getting there. As the streak mounts, the other characters converge and reach their private crises. And I guess there's always the possibility that Sayers will go all Inglourious Basterds on the story and let DiMaggio hit in 75 straight games (his target) or 100, or never stop hitting at all.

There's no magical realism in The Powers, however. At one point we're told that Babe O'Leary has a very special talent: "She shows up at the Stadium, and the Yankees win" (39). But we're quickly told that this in fact means that they've gone 51-10 in the games she's attended. That's good – in baseball, that's great – but it's more realism than magic. (Stranger things have happened: the Yankees once went 12-0 over two seasons when I showed up at the Stadium, and that was 1987-88, when they were decidedly non-Bomberish.)

No, in The Powers things happen as they happened: the streak ends at 56, and the war comes. Much of the interest in the novel is sustained by its keen depiction of events away from Yankee Stadium, in the midst of what historian Lynne Olson calls Those Angry Years, the era of intense national debate between intervention and isolation. I won't subject The Powers to the reviewer's cliché that it isn't "really" about baseball, and will absorb you if you don't care about the game. But it's certainly as much about war and peace, individual and community, and the problems of citizenship as it is about the national pastime.

In particular, The Powers is about photography. Agnes O'Leary discovers a passion for the artform when she notices a surreptitious photojournalist on the subway (a character who turns out to be nearly as famous as DiMaggio). Agnes's progress as a photographer is a strong thread in the novel. And the book is provocatively illustrated with numerous uncaptioned "found" photographs, not strongly aligned with the text they accompany. In this respect, Sayers's novel echoes the work of W.G. Sebald, a far happier literary parallel than Peter Golenbock. Sebald's stories of Holocaust, war, and exile draw much of their strength from images rather than words, and so does The Powers.

Sayers, Valerie. The Powers. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2013.